Pat Ford to manage new BBCC drone program

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Pat Ford BBCC Drone ProgramDr. Patrick Ford has been appointed Grant Manager for the new unmanned aerial systems (UAS/drone) program at Big Bend Community College.

BBCC President Terry Leas hired Ford to manage the New Opportunities in Aviation program a few days after the $2.6 million federal grant award was announced. Ford, who helped design the project proposal, was identified in the grant application as the grant manager should BBCC receive the award.

“The credentials and experience of Pat Ford were instrumental in the college being awarded the grant,” said Leas.

Ford is a 1978 Ephrata High School graduate who has moved back to Grant County after a 30-year aerospace career. He supports research with astronaut Dr. Buzz Aldrin on unmanned Mars exploration concepts and serves as a consulting science advisor for the Navy (which has included avionics flight testing of the EA-6B Prowler aircraft). He has worked as a Dean of Science and Technology for a major online university, and as a consultant for unmanned aerial systems, radar, and communications. He teaches for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Worldwide College of Aeronautics.

It will take one year to set up the program, with the first classes anticipated for fall of 2016. The first year of the grant is dedicated to hiring staff, developing curriculum, renovating 5,560-square feet of an existing college hangar for lab space, developing an advising system, and training advisors.

Three directors will be hired—for mechatronics (mechanical and electronics), UAS operations (pilots), and for pathway advising. An estimated 10 faculty positions will be trained in the new curricula and course delivery. The pathway advising component is crucial because students will be unfamiliar with the requirements for earning an associate degree in mechatronics or UAS operations.

In the meantime, Ford knows there are many questions to be answered about the program.

“Many people have asked where and when our unmanned aerial systems platforms will be flown,” Ford said. “On-campus flights will be indoors starting sometime in 2016. Our off-campus site has not been selected but will be in a remote location in which public safety and privacy—the two UAS flight foundation requirements—can be maximized.”

It will likely be late 2016 or early 2017 before the college’s request for a certificate of waiver or authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration will be approved for off-campus training flights. The program will work with fixed-wing and rotary-wing drones.

Ford said college drone flights will be posted on a scheduling program on the college’s website for maximum public exposure.

“We are a long ways—and a lot of paperwork—from flying drones off campus,” Ford said.

In coming months the New Opportunities in Aviation program will offer public seminars on drone flight rules and regulations for hobbyists, corporate, and public entities.

“Many hobby drones and some corporate UAV’s are already flying in Grant and surrounding counties,” Ford said. “We also will address how the public can report problems with drones, including privacy issues, which have become a concern as sales of hobby drones increase.

Ford returned to his family’s farm near Soap Lake. He earned a Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts from Excelsior College, a Master’s degree in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Ph.D. in Decision Sciences from Walden University. He holds both a Sport Pilot and Advanced Ground Instructor certificate.